Gay Male Subjects, Heterosexist Oppression and the Politics of Marriage
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The subject in this study is the gay man. Although the campaign for the legal recognition of same-sex marriage designates both gay men and lesbian women as its subjects, there is an overwhelming tendency within gay politics to assume that the interests of gay men and lesbian women are identical. The politicization of a gender-neutral gay identity has tended to exclusively represent the experiences of gay men as constitutive of an imagined harmoniously functioning LGBTQA community. Although I am focusing specifically on the formation of gay male subjects, I am not claiming this history to be representative of the entire LGBTQA experience. The point I hope to make is that gay male sexism is reflective of a larger power structure at work in the subordination and formation of a collective gay male identity. In section one I will explore how the oppressive heterosexist fence surrounding gay male identity was constructed and transformed beginning in the late seventeenth century and on through 1950. Gay male identity emerged simultaneously alongside the development of a heterosexist society during the transformative period of industrialism at the tum of the twentieth century. Heterosexism was deployed in defense of the sexist structure of the nuclear family, which operated interdependently alongside the growth of capitalism. By the 1950s, the gradual expansion of a pervasive heterosexist power regime congealed in the symbol of the violently oppressive closet. Alongside this construction of the closet, gay men simultaneously formed a collective identity and a vast subculture in the nation's urban centers. The closet took its most overtly violent form during the Cold War, and gay men's political mobilization of their gay identities gave birth to the beginning of gay politics in the United States. In section two I will explore how gay men challenged being confined to the heterosexist closet, and how subsequent gay political movements, beginning in the mid 1950s and on through today, narrowed the geography of gay male identity. The first task that gay political organizing undertook was to establish group identity as an oppressed gay minority, which confirms the position that subject formation occurs at the site of oppression. The gay movements that developed in the following years oscillated between a politics of radical liberation and liberal assimilation. During the radical periods of gay liberation, activists articulated a keen rhetorical framework for understanding heterosexist oppression as inextricably linked with sexism, racism, and capitalism. In spite of their radical theorizing, however, gay liberationists reproduced sexist, racist, and classist hierarchies within their movement. This gradual erosion of radical principles was marked by the emergence of the gay rights movement in the mid-1970s. Rather than understanding oppression in terms of heterosexism, the gay rights movement focused on homophobia (ignorant of straight people) as the problem. Although many straight people are indeed ignorant, and although this ignorance is painfully felt by many, focusing on homophobia obscures the systemic causes beneath widespread ignorance. The focus on homophobia in the late 1970s was appropriately accompanied by the emergence of the New Right, the gay movement's ftrst formally organized opponent. The gay rights movement responded with the bureaucratization of an identity-based, single-issue-oriented agenda. The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s resulted in a further narrowing of the gay rights movement, which eventually led to the incorporation of gay issues by the general public and the state. This condensed gloss of a highly complex history of oppression, identification, and diverse forms of resistance brings us to the issue at hand, the desire for the right to marry. In section three, I will explore how some gay men's desire for the right to marry fits into the ongoing narrative of gay male subjectivity and heterosexist oppression. The campaign for the equal right to marry is supported by many because it would provide the nuclear families of gay men and lesbian women with several benefits and protections. These benefits and protections cannot not be wanted by many gay men and lesbian women whose nuclear families are presently disadvantaged by formal inequality. But if we understand marriage as a mechanism by which an exclusive state of membership is reproduced within the historical context out of which a select group of gay men's political desire for marriage equality emerged, the right to marry seems far less desirable.